“If Bessières is a marshal, then everyone can be one.” Such were Marmont‘s words. Napoleon was perhaps fairer to him when, on St Helena he wrote “Bessières had a cold sort of bravery, and was calm admist the fighting. He had very good eyes, and was very experienced at cavalry manouvres, best suited to commanding cavalry reserves. Bessières was a vigorous reserve officer but prudent and circumspect. He was to be seen in all the great battles performing the greatests of services. And this was indeed the role he played in all the Napoleonic campaigns until his death on 1 May, 1813.
Bessières was born on 6 August, 1768, in Prayssac (Lot) near Cahors in southern France, son of a doctor who trained him to follow in his footsteps. As a result of the the Revolution, he was to serve in the garde nationale de Prayssac (soon becoming captain), but along with Murat he was to be enrolled in the “Constitutional Guard” of Louis XVI (7 April, 1792) and as a non-commissioned officer took part in the war against Spain in the 22 Chasseurs in the Armée des Pyrenées (later Pyrenées-Orientales).
In that Army of the Eastern Pyrenees (Pyrenées-Orientales) and in the Army of the Moselle he repeatedly distinguished himself for valour, and in 1796, as captain, he served in Napoleon Bonaparte’s Italian campaign. At Rovereto his conduct brought him to his chief’s notice, and after victory at Rivoli, he was sent to France (21 January, 1797) to deliver the captured colours to the Directory. Napoleon wrote to them: “Citizen Bessières, commander of the guides, brings you these colours. He is an officer disnguished for his bravery. On 9 March 1797 he was appointed chef de brigade (colonel).
As chef de brigade he next served in the Egyptian expedition, and won further distinction at Acre (March to May 1799) and Aboukir (25 July, 1799). He was also one of the small group of faithful officers who returned with Napoleon to Europe and to first consulship. During the Brumaire days Bessières was to provide Napoleon with careful support.
When the First Consul created the kernel of what was to be the consular and later imperial guard, Bessières was at the head, being appointed as commander of the Garde du Corps Législatif, soon to become the grenadiers of the Guard. Bessières briefly considered his chances as husband of Caroline, but he was beaten to the post by the flashing blade, Murat. Relations between Murat and Bessières were to remain difficult.
Bessières was present at Marengo (1800) as second-in-command of the Consular Guard, and led one of the two key cavalry charges at the close of the day. Kellermann’s charge with the dragoons in fact decided the day, by owing to Bessières closeness with the First Consul, it was his charge which Napoleon described as ‘glorieuse’; Kellerman’s was only called ‘belle’.
Promoted general of division in 1802 and marshal of France in 1804 (although last on the list – and some thought his presence there sullied it), he made the most famous campaigns of the Grande Armée as colonel-general of the Guard Cavalry (1805, 1806 and 1807).
In 1805 he had received the Grand Eagle of the Legion of Honour, and in 1809 was created Duc d’Istrie.
At Austerlitz he performed a key charge with the Cavalry of the Guard.
At Eylau, the reserve cavalry led by Murat and the Guard Cavalry led by Bessières save the day.
With the outbreak of the Peninsular War, Marshal Bessières had his first opportunity of an independent command, and his crushing victory over the Spaniards in the Battle of Medina del Rio Seco (1808) justified Napoleon’s choice. When disaster in other parts of the theatre of war called Napoleon himself to the Peninsula, Bessiêres continued to give the emperor the very greatest assistance in his campaign.
In 1809 he was again with the Grande Armée in the Danube valley. At Essling his repeated and desperate charges checked the Austrians in the full tide of their success. At the Battle of Wagram he had a horse killed under him. Replacing Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte in the command of the Army of the North, a little later in the same year, the newly-created duke of Istria successfully opposed the British Walcheren expedition, and in 1811 he was back again, in a still more important command, in Spain. As André Masséna‘s second-in-command he was present at the battle of Fuentes d’Onoro, but Napoleon never detached him for very long, and in 1812 he commanded the Guard Cavalry at the Battle of Borodino and in the retreat from Moscow. Wherever engaged he won further distinction, and at the beginning of the 1813 campaign he was appointed to the command of the whole of Napoleon’s cavalry.
Three days after the opening of the campaign (1 May, 1813), while reconnoitering the defile of Poserna-Rippach, Bessières was killed by a musket-ball. Napoleon, who deeply felt the loss of one of his truest friends and ablest commanders, protected his children, and his eldest son was made a member of the Chamber of Peers by Louis XVIII.
As a commander, especially of cavalry, Bessières left a reputation excelled by very few of Napoleon’s marshals, and his dauntless courage and cool judgment made him a safe leader in independent command. He was personally beloved to an extraordinary extent amongst his soldiers, and (unlike most of the French generals of the time) amongst his opponents. It is said that masses were performed for his soul by the priests of insurgent Spain, and the king of Saxony raised a monument to his memory.